This month, we combined forces with the NPS group, Philosophical Explorations, and thus numbers swelled to around twenty or so. We also began a little earlier too, at 10:30. The topic, Art and Spirituality had been brought forward from December in order to accommodate those who were only able to attend during the summer. I began by summarising the purpose of the project and what had been covered in the first meeting (see previous discussion summary) and then we bravely tackled metaphysics/ontology , art and aesthetics, spirituality, Rudolf Seiner, Joseph Beuys and bees!
Referring to Professor Jode’s illuminating short chapter on the sub-sections of philosophy in his Teach-Yourself-Series “Philosophy” [see attachment on the website], I began by pointing out that an important but often neglected subject is aesthetics which is itself a sub-grouping of metaphysics. According to my Routledge Concise Encyclopedia of Philisophy (2000),Edward Craig considers Metaphysics to be a broad area of philosophy marked out by two types of inquiry:
the most general investigation possible into the nature of reality per se and whether there are principles applying to everything that is real, that is, all there is or that exists, or, simply stated, “Being”. This can be put another, perhaps more useful way, as: if and when we abstract from the particular natures of existing things that which distinguishes them from each other, what can we confidently and reliably know about them merely in virtue of the fact that they exist?
The seeking to uncover what is ultimately real, frequently offering answers in sharp contrast to our everyday or familiar experience of the world.
However, it is very important to realise that these two questions are not the same thing at all, since, someone who was quite unworried by the possibility that the world might really be otherwise than it appears (and therefore regarded the second investigation as a completely trivial one), might still be engaged by the question of whether there were any truths applicable to all existing things.
For example, Plato famously believed in the second definition and approach as exemplified in his Theory of the Forms but one doesn’t have to agree with him at all when considering matters from the first definitional approach. Aristotle, his famous pupil, proposed the first of these investigations and called it, conveniently enough, “First Philosophy”, sometimes also, the “Science of Being”; however, at some point in antiquity, his writings on the topic came to be known—via the arbitrary cataloguing process—as the “metaphysics” (from the Greek for “after natural things”, that is, whatever comes after the study of nature, which, in contrast to Plato, was Aristotle’s great contribution to botany, biology and philosophy). This is as much as we know of the origin of the word and it has, unfortunately, caused vast confusion ever since!
So much so, that most philosophers try to avoid such vagueness and perplexity by preferring to use the very similar concept contained in the word “Ontology”. This is closely related to “Metaphysics” in as much as it is usually taken to involve both “what is existence or being?” and “what (fundamentally distinct) types of things exist?” without needing to raise the spectre of a possible Reality existing behind appearances, which, all too easily, leads to the supernatural and the occult.
It is thus common to speak of a philosopher’s ontology, meaning the kinds of things they would take to exist, or the ontology of a theory, meaning the things that would have to exist for that theory to be true. Such clarifications are essential for any investigation of art or aesthetics, and especially so when we come to examine—albeit briefly—Rudolf Steiner’s theory of anthroposophy and his attitude to bees, and by extension, the strange avant-garde artwork of his follower, Joseph Beuys.
Jack Grassby had previously expressed to Sharon and me the insightful view, concerning the history of bees and beekeeping, that both were marked by an almost total absence of connection to the philosophical canon rather than by the opposite. This is undoubtedly true and is due to the fact that, until comparatively recent times of scientific observation and empirical documentation, very little indeed was reliably and actually known about the lifestyle of the honeybee and the hive. Instead, this very mystery and ignorance produced a vast and continuous tradition of folklore and spiritually-based speculation regarding bees and the honeybee in particular. Early in historical times, man regarded the honeybee as a sacred creature (for instance, the Ancient Egyptians and the Ancient Greeks, the latter of whom symbolised honey and nectar as being among the daily diet of the Gods).
Highly instructive in this regard are some brief but very significant facts and dates re man and the honeybee and the art or science of beekeeping:
1586: The first recognition that the larger leader bee in the hive was not, in fact, the “king” bee but a queen who laid eggs. In his Tratado Breve de la Cultivacion y Cura de los Colmenes (Brief Treaty of the Cultivation and Treatment of Beehives), the Spanish scientist, Luis Mendez de Torres, recognized that one key female figure was responsible for the birth of all the bees in the hive—worker-bees, drones, and, of course new queens. Nevertheless, Torres still somehow failed to realise the queen could mate.
1609: Charles Butler’s Feminine Monarchie was the first full-length book on beekeeping written in English. In this, he worked out that bees produced wax from their own bodies and not from plants as previously considered by no less a personage than Aristotle in his History of Animals (“The honeycomb is made from flowers and the materials for the wax they gather from the resinous gums of trees, while honey is distilled from dew and is deposited chiefly at the raisings of the constellations or when a rainbow is in the sky.” As cited in The Bad beekeeper’s Club, page 158, by Bill Turnbull, the BBC correspondent and tv presenter). Butler also identified the drones as male bees but erred in asserting that worker bees also lay eggs [actually, there is an exception to this usual rule as they do in the rare circumstance of no queen being available—in order to raise a new one]
1771: Slovenian beekeeper Anton Janscha, for the very first time, saw the queen flying out of the hive and returning fully fertilised. She also was observed at that same time to be carrying away with her both the semen and the genitalia of the male drone bee(s).
1778: The blind Huber and his industrious and meticulous servant and assistant, Burnens, also recorded, in Switzerland, the inferred fact of the queen’s dramatic mating flight, without actually observing it first-hand. They also confirmed most of what is now scientifically known about the actual habits and lifestyle of honeybees and the hive.
1859: Reverend Millette of Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, was the very first recorded observer actually to witness the moment of copulation itself when “the queen chanced to fall to the ground in the middle of her mating flight “ while in close contact with the drone before the latter expired “having lost the ‘speciality of his sex’. . . It was later still that it was discovered that the queen usually mates with more than one drone, albeit on a single mating flight. It was also only over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century that scientists began to unravel the puzzle of how the bee colony determines the sex of the eggs that the queen lays, according of the needs of the society as a whole.” (Bee Wilson, The Hive: the Story of the Beehive and Us (2004, pages 104-5).
Thus, it is with no little—but not inconsistent-- surprise, in view of the above, that Rudolf Steiner, in his nine 1923 lectures on bees revisited this mystical aspect of the bees and the hive. Steiner passionately considered that modern science and commercial beekeeping practices had largely and detrimentally overlooked the spiritual, metaphysical, and biodynamic dimension of apiary science.
To cite the blurb on the back cover of the 1998 Anthroposophic Press’ book, “Bees: Lectures by Rudolf Steiner: “In 1923 Steiner predicted the dire state of the honeybee today. He said then that in fifty to eighty years we would see the consequences of mechanizing the forces that had previously operated organically in the beehive, such as the practice of artificially breeding queen bees. The fact that over sixty percent of the honeybee population has died during the past ten years and that this same phenomena is occurring around the world should urge our attention to the importance of the issues discussed in these lectures. Rudolf Steiner began this series of lectures on bees in response to a question from an audience of construction workers. From physical depictions of the daily activities of bees to the loftiest esoteric insights, the lectures describe the unconscious wisdom contained in the beehive and its connection to our experience of health, culture, and the cosmos. They are essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the true nature of the honeybee, as well as those who wish to heal the contemporary crisis of the beehive.”
Much of this non-holistic ecological global crisis of the honeybee—upon whom we so depend for the greater part of our pollinated food supply—has been caused by Man: by his Cartesian dualistic approach to nature which sees it as something separate for himself and thus amenable completely to instrumental and pragmatic exploitation, whether for food, commercial profit, or, as recently, as an ally in the quest for medical scanning knowledge and the detection of diseases. Steiner’s anthroposophy is a metaphysical system of esoteric and occult theorising of some complexity and opaqueness. His bee lectures firmly reflect this. What is not clear, however, is whether we should regard his analyses and observations, his self-proclaimed “spiritual science” as commendable and/or acceptable. And, furthermore, is his system a philosophical one embracing a consistent and intelligible ontology and social ethic? And where does art and aesthetics and Joseph Beuys come into the picture? Such were the interesting questions we went on to animatedly discuss in our roundtable format after I had briefly set the scene of what is meant philosophically by the aesthetic.
In Book X of his “The Republic”, Plato places Socrates and Glaucon in a dialogue concerning the meaning, status and usefulness of craftsmanship and the representational arts generally. Plato hereby established his classical theory of art as imitation or “mimetic” of ontological objects which surround us and which themselves are mere imitations of true Reality which exists beyond the senses and the observable and the experienced world of familiarity. [please see the attachment “Plato’s Theory of Art in his The Republic”].
Plato regarded all such art as mere mirror-imaging and thus inferior and of little interest as all such was three-times removed from his ideal and perfect Forms of Beauty, Justice, Goodness, etc. Such a theory of beauty and imitation held the intellectual and philosophical field for over two millennia and, in fact, only began to be challenged after the invention of the camera at the end of the nineteenth-century which encouraged artists to adopt new and unrepresentational methods and conceptual viewpoints. This ushered in what we know as postmodernism in art and led onto the post post-modernism or abstract expressionist and conceptual schools that is exemplified in the stunning range of work of the contemporary avant-garde artist, the German-born, Joseph Beuys. Beuys, it has but recently been realised, was an enthusiastic student and reader of Steiner’s voluminous anthroposophical writings and artwork, especially the 1923 lectures on bees, which in turn greatly influenced Beuys and his complex artwork and conceptual performances and Actions.
Such artwork cannot possibly fit into Plato’s Imitation Theory and I specifically cited Arthur C. Danto’s seminal 1964 article entitled “Artworks” to illustrate the new aesthetic and ontological questions raised by such non-representational and revolutionary artwork. For example, Danto cites Van Gough’s extraordinary early Dutch painting “The Potato Eaters” as well as Robert Rauschenberg’s and Claes Oldenberg’s respective sculptural beds to illustrate his criticism of the non-utility of Plato’s art theory. In so doing, he makes a very powerful and persuasive case for saying such art objects create their own extended ontological value and clearly exist in their own rights. Such artworks do not exist as mimetic forms or objects of imitation. They are, in fact, quite unique, and not copies of anything. Danto’s new theory—ironically termed by him the “Real Theory”, has opened up vast new creative concepts and ontological possibilities, and it is significant that Danto is not only an American philosophical professional but was also an artist of the New York abstract-expressionist school of the fifties so knows well of that which he speaks.
Such ontological and artistic possibilities are both thoroughly and enthusiastically investigated by both Steiner and Beuys but this is not the place to detail them. Several relevant attachments of book excerpts, articles, and reviews are available on this website which should, it is hoped, provide sufficient explication. I particularly recommend the brief introduction by Gunther Hauk and the Afterword Essay by David Adams, From Queen Bee to Social Sculture: The Artistic Alchemy of Joseph Beuys”, both in the Steiner book on bee lectures cited above. The latter, again according to the rear cover blurb, stresses that Steiner’s “elemental imagery and its relationship to human society played an important role in Beuys’s sculptures, drawings, installations, and performance art. The essay on Beuys adds a whole new dimension to these lectures, usually viewed as specific to biodynamic methods and beekeeping.”
To conclude this summary of a vivid and far-ranging discussion last Saturday morning at the Lit & Phil, other interesting areas of comparative philosophical debate were touched upon by the group. These included (in no particular order): Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Urinal” sculpture/object (thanks Jack!); Immanuel Kant’s epistemology of contrasting cognitive phenomenological knowledge via space-time a priori categories with the unknowable “things-in-themselves” noumenon (me, I think!); Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Will as Representation” challenge to Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, the ethical categorical imperatives and “the moral law within” notions (!) via the famous misanthrope and mysoginist’s assertion that the contemplation of art brings but a fleeting but much-needed relief from pessimism and the suffering of living (thanks Bill!); and Soren Keirkegaard’s Christian Existentialist theory of classical beauty which states that outside inspiration is vital for an artist to create the greatest of art which is always unique and unrepeatable, thereby avoiding the instinctual fate of the honeycomb of bees which, although startlingly impressive is identically and uniformly produced and thus does not qualify as “beautiful” or “aesthetic”.
Kierkegaard would argue then that we are not bees precisely because we have great art. We amateur philosophers knew better and were quite unable, of course to come to any conclusion whatsoever! [Kierkegaard’s Victorian Age pre-postmodernism observation came from me, citing Volume I of his Either/Or opus. I also cite this in full in my posted Preview on the website for this group discussion]; and, finally, we did manage, somehow, to also briefly discuss the current global ecological crisis of the honeybee both by reference to the recent BBC Horizon documentary, “Who’s Killing the Bees”, produced and narrated by bad beekeeper above, Bill Turnbull, as well as via a honeyed oration by our own David Dobereiner who most poetically stated that each and every flower is absolutely unique—as, also, is he!.
Coincidentally, poetry (along with Plato and honey as poison) is our next group’s subject on Saturday September 21st, and you are all cordially invited once again! So I will now leave you with Malcolm’s excellent exit joke which stumped us all: “What is in the eye of the bee-holder? Answer: “Beauty!”